Bryce Canyon National Park inspires stories.
A Native American Paiute myth tells of animal-like “Legend People” who offended Coyote with their bad ways. As punishment, Coyote transformed them to stone, standing mute for eternity.
Geologists say the canyon’s hoodoos — tall, thin spires of rock — began as sediment — first on an ocean floor, then on a freshwater lake — and were uplifted and sculpted through the centuries by freeze-and-thaw cycles.
Ebenezer Bryce, an early Mormon settler and rancher for whom the park is named, once called the area “a hell of a place to lose a cow.”
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Although named Bryce Canyon, the park is technically not a canyon because it’s one-sided. Rather, it’s a series of horseshoe-shaped amphitheaters drained by the Paria River and tributaries. Water and silt that begin here eventually find their way into the Grand Canyon.
If you’re visiting other national parks in the region, keep in mind that Bryce Canyon is 78 miles from Zion National Park and 150 miles from the Grand Canyon’s North Rim.
Many of Bryce Canyon’s highlights can be seen in a half-day but the park richly rewards those who give it a little time.
At Bryce, light is best for photos when the sun is low in the sky, giving contrast to the textures and colors of the landscape.
We timed our arrival for a little after noon, ate lunch just outside the park at Ruby’s Inn, checked into the motel and five hours before sunset drove into the park to the end of the only road, 18 miles to Rainbow Point. This way we avoided the flat light of mid-day and had time to finish the approximate four-hour tour while the light was still good.
The park’s 14 roadside overlooks are an easy right turn on the way back.
The road gradually ascends about 1,200 feet from Blue Spruce territory to Bristlecone Pine.
By the time you reach the end you may wonder what the fuss was all about — until you get out of the car.
The southern portion of the park offers 100-mile-long vistas; the northern turnouts feature intimate views of the hoodoos.
The park’s elevation is deceptively high; the Paunsaugunt Plateau is one of the top steps in a geologic staircase that steps down the Colorado Plateau.
Elevation along the road ranges from 7,894 at the Visitor’s Center to 9,115 feet at the end of the road at Rainbow Point. The available oxygen is about 70 percent of sea level.
The park averages a million and a half visitors a year and during the afternoon streams of cars wind up the road.
Crowds quickly thinned on the trails below the rim in early April.
Our best moment came early the second day.
The evening before there had been dozens of cars filled with hikers and photographers at Sunset Point but when we arrived before sunrise, about 15 minutes from our motel room, we were one of five. It was 35 degrees and breezy as we walked to the viewpoint.
The calls of canyon wrens, ravens and owls occasionally broke the silence as the Eastern sky began to glow. On the trail below the rim, as the sun broke the horizon, the light reflected off iron oxide-saturated walls and created glowing orange light.
The Legend People watched in silence as we drank in the wonder.
Within minutes the sun rose into a high overcast sky and the magic light was gone.